Clemson Extension School and Community Garden Program

Grow An Herb Garden- Plant Basil

Genovese basil is perfect for use in homegrown pesto. (Photo A. Dabbs)

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)is an herb garden staple in our household.  A popular ingredient in cooking and so easy to grow, many varieties are also so beautiful they can be used as ornamental plants in the landscape!

Basil is a warm-season, annual herb that is easy to start from seed indoors.  In the coastal region, we started seeds at the beginning of March and transplanted them outdoors in mid-to late-April (once the ground temperatures are in the 70s).

Basil prefers full sun, so be sure to plant somewhere that receives at least six hours of sun per day. Once the basil is established, it will begin to produce flowers and then seeds. Pinch off flower buds as they appear to create thicker plants with more leaves for harvesting and to prolong its life in the garden. Harvest basil by cutting or pinching off individual leaves, or by cutting a section with multiple leaves.

There are many varieties of basil, each with a different flavor profile. I like to grow three or four different varieties each year so I can experiment with them. Here are some of the varieties that I like to grow:

Genovese is the type most people are familiar with. It is very popular in Italian cooking. It has large, dark green leaves and is great for making pesto. This is a staple variety that I grow every year in my garden.

‘Pesto Perpetuo’, sometimes called columnar basil is a hybrid basil often used in ornamental gardening because of its variegated leaves and upright form. It is not typically used for cooking.  Since it is a hybrid basil you will have to purchase transplants at the garden center since it does not produce viable seeds.

‘Dark Opal’ is a beautiful variety of purple basil. I love using this in ornamental beds because its dark leaves provide a great contrast with other plants.  It also has a lovely, tangy flavor for use in cooking. Purple basil is pretty in salads or bottles of vinegar, rather than in traditional pesto dishes.

Thai Basil is most often used in sauces and Thai cooking because of its licorice or anise-like flavor. The leaves are narrow compared to other basils, and it produces beautiful purple flowers. I use Thai basil most often in my own kitchen.

Lemon Basil is exactly what the name suggests, lemon-flavored and scented. Like Thai basil, the leaves are narrow. While this can be used in any basil recipe that you want to have a citrusy taste, my favorite use is to add to homemade lemonade!

We use basil almost daily at our house.  We incorporate it into pasta sauces, Caprese pizzas, and in an easy dip for bread.  Just mix freshly harvested basil, crushed garlic, salt, pepper, and balsamic vinegar, with olive oil in a bowl and swirl fresh bread in it.

Below are two of my favorite basil recipes:

Basil Pesto

  • 2 cups basil, fresh-picked
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • ¼ cup pine nuts (can substitute sunflower seeds or walnuts)
  • 2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • optional: ½ cup parmesan cheese

Blend all ingredients in a blender or food processor.

Basil Lemonade

  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1 cup firmly packed basil leaves
  • 6 cups of water
  • 1 ½ cups freshly squeezed lemon juice

In a saucepan, muddle sugar and basil together with a wooden spoon. Add in 2 cups of water and simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently. Continue until all of the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and allow basil to steep in sugar until cool. This is your simple syrup.  Once the syrup is cool, strain into a pitcher. Add 4 cups of water and the lemon juice. Stir well! Garnish with basil and lemon.

Megan Shearer
Megan Shearer, Program Assistant, School & Community Gardening, Clemson Extension

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